Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple


We’ve all made them: lists of steps we can take to become our better selves. Eat broccoli and kale instead of potato chips! Be nice to that nebbish of a next-door neighbor! Sign up for a gym membership — then actually go!

In the beginning, it’s easy to get carried away by a new self-improvement regimen. But sticking to it and yielding lasting results? That’s another story. Take it from Eleanor Flood, the half-clever, mostly neurotic protagonist of Maria Semple’s third novel. She’s having quite a rough go of it.

At the onset of Today Will Be Different, a novel that takes place over the course of a day, Eleanor — now pushing 50 — aims to finally become that elusive “together” person. Be a better mother to her 8-year-old son, Timby. Have more sex with her husband, Joe. Banish the “ghost-walking, the short-tempered distraction, the hurried fog” once and for all. But as the hours tick by, we witness her doing everything but.

In reality, Eleanor’s life is a hot mess. She was once the famed animation director for “Looper Wash,” a smash-hit animated TV show about four right-wing girls hanging out in a dry riverbed. But ever since she moved from New York to Seattle 10 years ago to follow her husband’s career as a hand surgeon for the Seahawks, her days have become sort of … blah. Aimless. Humdrum.

She signs up for mindfulness classes and bails at the last minute. She’s eight years late delivering a manuscript for a graphic memoir and ignores calls from her publisher. Meals at home consist of everyone eating in front of a separate computer or television screen. Her one saving grace is a weekly breakfast with the local poetry professor she hired to teach her the classics — and even that’s just reciting rhymes over runny eggs.

But as fans of her sleeper hit Where’d You Go, Bernadette might recall, Semple has an impish soft spot for stirring up chaos. Just as Bernadette’s zany behavior and miraculous disappearing act captured readers’ imaginations in that book, so too does Today’s narrative — and Eleanor’s day — quickly devolve into deliciously mucky mayhem.

While retrieving Timby from school in the morning because of a tummy ache, Eleanor steals a Galer Street School mom’s keys (more on that later). With Timby in tow, she drives to her husband’s office for an impromptu visit, only to find Joe gone. He’s informed his secretary the family is on vacation for the week. Naturally, Eleanor’s first thought is an affair. So what better than to embark on an afternoon-long wild goose chase to catch him in the act?

Aside from its familiar setting and Semple’s oh-so fetching dry wit (she’s one of few authors whose jokes induce laughing out loud), here’s where the similarities between Bernadette and Today end. As Bernadette was tightly constructed despite jumping from plot thread to plot thread and relayed using emails, letters and other documents germane to the story line, Today can sometimes be too scattered for its own good.

Take the aforementioned Galer Street mom’s keys. The reason why Eleanor rashly swipes them isn’t made clear until late in the book — too late, perhaps, to fully comprehend much of what happens leading up to the reveal. The appearance for the afternoon’s lunch date of Spencer, a lowly “Looper Wash” employee whom Eleanor has shrugged off as a hack “careerist” and promptly fired, is also puzzling at first. Eleanor’s reunion with him as he prepares for a solo art opening at the Seattle Art Museum seems to be included only as a setup for Eleanor’s semi-concussion at the hands of his sculpture — in other words, for spectacle.

Unlike Bernadette’s character, whose snide asides and loony-tunes antics nearly always worked out in her favor in the long run (after all, she remained fiercely independent to the end and never lost the support of her daughter, Bee), Eleanor comes off as more of a kvetch-prone worrywart with a scant grip on reality.

In fact, it’s Timby who tells his poor mom to “Please. Stop” and “Put it behind you” at various points throughout the day. Though admittedly amusing, her behavior screams less “What a riot she is!” than “Should someone call child services?”

Still, there are elements to savor in Eleanor’s midlife crisis, especially in light of Joe’s AWOL status — a come-to-Jesus situation if there ever was one. Some of the book’s most intriguing sections are deep-dive flashbacks into Eleanor’s past, including scoops on Eleanor’s estranged sister, Ivy, and Ivy’s flamboyant and controlling husband, Bucky; the girls’ Broadway starlet mother and alcoholic-turned-bookie father; and a page-by-page reproduction of The Flood Girls — the hand-drawn photo album Eleanor gave to Ivy as an engagement present.

At one point in Today Will Be Different, Eleanor says to Timby, “When you get older, mean is funny.” The quote could serve as a mantra for Semple’s work as a television writer for “Arrested Development” and “Mad About You.” It’s also a reason why her novels are so beloved by many.

But maybe there’s another motivator for Semple, one that exposes her softer side. By the end of the book, Eleanor does get to the bottom of Joe’s whereabouts, but not before almost losing him — and her sanity — in the process. Will she ever get her act together? Nah, probably not. But that’s what makes Eleanor human — and this imperfect book valuable.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 30, 2016)

%d bloggers like this: